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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Stroman’

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a piece of musical theatre which packs such an emotional punch. I left the Young Vic completely drained, but absolutely exhilarated at having seen a masterpiece, and a masterclass in staging and performance.

I’ve said before that what I like about Kander & Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago…..) is that each show is completely different, and here they use the form of the minstrel show to tell the true story of nine black boys aged 13 to 19 who are wrongly accused and tried for rape in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. Historically accurate, it covers the period from the alleged crime through the rest of the 30’s when justice evades them and you realise it isn’t about justice at all – no deep south all-white jury will ever free these boys; it’s all about race. The ongoing American north – south divide has never been shown more vividly. It’s being staged here in 2013, somewhat chillingly the same year the Governor of Alabama finally exonerated these boys.

The minstrel form is also used faithfully, but turns it on its head with black actors playing white performers disrespecting African-Americans. There’s a white Interlocutor (MC), brilliantly played with great presence by Julian Glover who is also the governor and judge. Two comic characters, Mr Bones (a superb Colman Domingo, whose one man show so impressed me just last month at the Tricycle) and Mr Tambo ( an equally superb performance by Forrest McClendon) comment on the action and double up as sheriff’s and prison guards. The minstrels are the boys themselves, two of whom (Christian Dante White & James T Lane) also brilliantly play the alleged victims with just hats and handbags and all of whom perform with the sort of commitment and energy which blows you away. Kyle Scatliffe as the boy’s ‘leader’ makes you share his anger, such is the passion of his performance. There’s another character, ‘the lady’ on stage but silent for the whole show, whose significance only becomes clear at the very end (and even more so if you read the programme notes).

It uses a semi-circle of chairs that was apparently the norm at minstrel shows. These chairs then create trains, prison cells and court rooms in a simple but highly effective staging. Susan Stroman, best known here for The Producers, stages and choreographs this stunningly. It starts like any other musical, all song and dance, but becomes ever more chilling and uncomfortable, using this form to serve the story with respect, both shocking and entertaining. Sadly, Fred Ebb didn’t live to see what must be the artistic (if not commercial) pinnacle of the career of these masters of musical theatre.

You may have gathered from the superlative fest above that I cannot recommend this show enough. Don’t go expecting a typical musical. It won’t be comfortable, but you’ll probably leave the theatre as deeply rewarded as I did. A triumph for all involved.

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When you go and see an already panned show, you often come out thinking ‘well, it wasn’t that bad’. Not so in this case; you come out at the interval thinking ‘get me out of here’, go home and down a large glass of red.

There are many mysteries associated with this show:

  • Had the Menier’s David Brabani read the book or heard the music before he risked tarnishing the Menier brand? 
  • Has the man who directed the original productions of Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Company, Pacific Overtures, Candide, Evita and Phantom of the Opera lost the plot?
  • Has the woman responsible for the wonderful choreography of The Producers and the NT’s Oklahoma had a temporary or permanent loss of taste and style?
  • Did all those experienced and lauded Broadway actors, including a man called Mandy, just come for the daytime sightseeing?
  • Have they got something on the man who has had 10 plays produced by the RSC (not that I ever really understood their obsession with him)? Was he blackmailed?

We may never know…..

Rumour has it the American producers opened it here because the Tony Award laden venue is now such a draw on Broadway, that putting ‘Direct from The Menier Chocolate Factory, London’ puts bums (or should we say butts) on seats. The cast and production team have even more Tony’s than the Menier, so they should know better. No-one can breathe life into a shit show with a bad book and dreadfully twee music. Yes, it’s as bad as the reviews……

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